Views & Voices

President Obama’s executive action must include transgender immigrants

Zoraida Reyes

Zoraida Reyes

Today is a day full of promise, mourning, and reflection.

On this Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR), President Barack Obama is announcing major executive action on immigration. And on TDoR, we remember the hundreds of senseless murders that our community faces worldwide each year, which disproportionately target trans women of color.

Zoraida Reyes

Zoraida Reyes, a transgender immigrant rights activist, was found murdered in June 2014.

One of these martyrs this year was our friend Zoraida Reyes, an undocumented young trans woman and an up-and-coming immigrant rights and trans activist.

Just a few weeks before she was brutally killed, Zoraida organized a powerful protest outside the immigration detention center in her hometown of Santa Ana, California along with other courageous LGBTQ immigrant organizers such as Tania Unzueta and Marisa Franco of the Not1More Deportation campaign, Bamby Salcedo of the TransLatin@ Coalition, and Jorge Gutierrez of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement.

Zoraida knew well the abuse that her trans immigrant sisters face inside of immigration detention. Her friend and fellow trans organizer Valeria de la Luz had herself just been released from an immigration detention center in San Diego less than a month before the protest.

Valeria had experienced extreme persecution and violence in Mexico, and she had turned herself in at the border asking for asylum because she did not want to end up yet another name memorialized at TDoR.

In a cruel irony, she was punished for seeking to survive by being locked up with men and facing extreme harassment from both Border Patrol agents and detention center guards who told her that she wasn’t really a woman.

Many other trans refugees flee police violence in their birth countries only to find themselves targeted and criminalized by police in the U.S. simply for their existence as trans women of color.

Unfortunately, Valeria is one of the lucky ones. While transgender women only make up 1 out of 500 detained immigrants in this country, they make up a horrific 1 out of every 5 confirmed sexual assaults in immigration detention.

As described in a recent report by Fusion, “an ICE detention officer in Arizona forced a trans woman to take her shirt off, while he ejaculated into a styrofoam cup and demanded that she drink his semen. He admitted to the abuse and served two days in county jail, while the victim remained in ICE detention for another five months awaiting her asylum hearing — in a cell with men.”

Other trans women such as Transgender Law Center’s client Barbra Perez are forced into solitary confinement, which is widely recognized as torture.

Barbra was also denied access to her medically necessary hormones. Outrageously, many people living with HIV have also been deprived of essential medical treatment, including Victoria Arellano, a trans woman who died of AIDS-related complications in detention in 2007.

All of these abuses are in violation of ICE’s own internal standards, which they have repeatedly refused to follow. These conditions so unbearable that many trans women in desperation accept deportation and risk near-certain violence upon their return to their birth countries rather than continue to be tortured in ICE custody.

Worryingly, trans immigrants are largely excluded under the rumored contents of President Obama’s plan.

If, as reports suggests, only U.S. citizens’ parents without previous convictions are protected from deportation, the immigration authorities (and the Obama Administration) will continue to subject many more trans women to violence, rape, and torture.

To cement his legacy on LGBTQ rights, President Obama must take executive action that includes transgender immigrants.

We call on the President to honor Zoraida’s memory by showing, on this Transgender Day of Remembrance, that he does not view the lives of immigrant transgender woman of color as disposable.

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